I think it was C. S. Lewis who once said of a new friend, maybe Owen Barfield, that he had read all the right books only to come to all the wrong conclusions. Lewis’s quote came to mind on several occasions as I read Alissa Wilkinson and Robert Joustra’s How to Survive the Apocalypse.
Though published a year before Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, Wilkinson and Joustra’s book is one of the best resources I know of for people who want a helpful diagnosis of our cultural moment told in a more hopeful, conciliatory mode than Dreher’s book. Indeed, the book’s final chapter extols the virtues of “the Daniel Option” as a more hopeful, constructive alternative to Dreher’s project.
Rod foresees a new dark age brought about by the excesses of late modern liberalism. Wilkinson and Joustra see the same basic social order and even admit that it can veer into the dangerous extremes that Dreher identifies. But, significantly, they argue that it has the resources within itself to avoid those dark possibilities and instead mature into a healthy, functional social order.
Summarizing the Book
If you think of Apocalypse as a pop-culture-obsessed cousin to James K. A. Smith’s How (Not) To Be Secular, you have a good feel for the book. Both texts lean heavily on Charles Taylor but whereas Smith’s book is chiefly a condensation of A Secular Age, Wilkinson and Joustra review Taylor’s corpus more broadly while also linking it with specific popular TV shows and movies of the past 15 years.
This overlap is not a coincidence—Joustra teaches at Redeemer University College, a Dutch Reformed school in the Toronto area, and worked for the thinktank Cardus for a number of years before moving to Redeemer. Smith, of course, is the editor-in-chief of Comment, a magazine published by Cardus.
Wilkinson, now a staffwriter with Vox.com and a professor at King’s College in Manhattan, likewise has strong ties to Cardus and the Dutch Reformed world. Indeed, my introduction to her work came many years ago when I came across her marvelous review of Nancy Pearcey’s Saving Leonardo, published in Comment, which remains one of the best short summaries of the problems with the Christian worldview movement. (Of course, the best book-length statement of the problems with the Christian worldview movement came from Smith in his Desiring the Kingdom.)
There are a number of benefits to a more pop culture-heavy approach. It allows the authors to discuss a variety of different aspects of modern secularism as explained by Taylor. Indeed, as a pure description of secularism there are ways in which I think this book is more comprehensive than Dreher’s.
Additionally, such an approach allows the authors to comment on a variety of trends in popular TV shows and movies, which makes the book feel more concrete and accessible than most books tackling similar subject matter. Most people aren’t going to read Charles Taylor’s largest works. In fact, most people won’t even read a good summary of Taylor’s works, such as Smith’s Secular book.
But millions of people watch Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Battlestar Galactica, and House of Cards. By focusing on these stories, Wilkinson and Joustra make much of the thinking that Taylor has done more accessible, which is a useful service regardless of whether or not you agree with their conclusions.
Identity and the Politics of Recognition
I want to focus primarily around the center of the book, which is the two chapters on anti-heroes and the politics of recognition. These chapters were the standout essays of the book for me in as much as they helped clarify a number of important points, and ultimately explain why I think this book could be so significant but also why I found its conclusions to be so disheartening.
Much of what Wilkinson and Joustra say about these issues should be familiar. The idea of our “identities” being shaped and defined by given norms and structures has been discarded and replaced with the idea of some sort of inner identity which individuals must discover through various forms of exploration, introspection, and experience.
The common criticism of this sort of identity-as-construction approach is that it is ultimately amoral and relativistic. At its worst, this sort of identity creation is oriented only toward power. Wilkinson and Joustra are well aware of this criticism, which is why their reflection on the issue in chapter five is chiefly concerned with various types of anti-heroes in popular culture.
Both antiheroes spend much of their lives on the edges of power. Both, in their own ways, are so disenfranchised that there is an important sense in which they basically have no agency at all. When we meet White in the opening scene of Breaking Bad‘s pilot, he is an obviously ridiculous suburban dad stranded in the desert with no pants blubbering pathetically into a camera.
As both White and Underwood become more frustrated and emasculated, they both make the same pivot: They become willing to do anything to gain power and agency. White makes this move before our eyes in Breaking Bad while Underwood did it long before the events in House of Cards, but both make the same basic move. This becomes their form of identity construction, this is the real or authentic Walter White or Frank Underwood. “Authenticity” is thus revealed to be a thinly veiled disguise for “I am whoever I want to be and can do whatever I want.”
To readers more inclined to share Dreher’s assessment of our cultural moment, all of this will make good sense. “This is why we’re in such a dark moment,” they’ll be thinking. Not so fast, say Wilkinson and Joustra:
Human beings don’t figure out who they are in a vacuum. The process of developing our identities happens over time, as we encounter various ‘significant others’—beginning with our parents and siblings and eventually expanding out to friends, extended families, teachers, lovers, spouses, and children over our lifetimes.
These relationships with significant others are, by definition, what confer significance upon our lives. So our choices are limited in the sense that we cannot simply unleash our Id on the world and call it good. That doesn’t work for anyone, even Walter White or Frank Underwood. The significant others that exist in our lives will react to that and we will experience a loss of significance.
Wilkinson and Joustra:
Here is the point, according to Taylor: ‘Authenticity can’t be defended in ways that collapse horizons of significance’—that is, it’s impossible to make ourselves significant (the point of ‘authenticity’) in a world in which no choices are significant.
Here they quote Taylor from The Malaise of Modernity:
Even the sense that the significance of my life comes from its being chosen—the case where authenticity is grounded on self-determining freedom—depends on the understanding that independent of my will there is something noble, courageous, and hence significant in giving shape to my own life. There is a picture here of what human beings are like, placed between this option for self-creation, and easier modes of copping out, going with the flow, conforming with the masses, and so on, which picture is seen as true, discovered, not decided. Horizons are given. … Unless some options are more significant than others, the very idea of self-choice falls into triviality and hence incoherence.
This reflection marks the end of the anti-hero chapter. Wilkinson and Joustra end on a rather despairing note:
The powerless, insignificant end that every antihero comes to is a result of following individually defined values, of trying to ‘escape’ the inescapable moral horizons that come from beyond us. But this doesn’t have to be our end. How do we leave this fate behind? Against what do we define our identities? How do we become significant, if choice itself is not enough?
To answer that question, they pivot to what they call “the politics of recognition” in the next chapter, which considers the 2013 film Her, a love story about the “relationship” that exists between a man, played by Joaquin Phoenix, and his operating system, voiced by Scarlett Johansson.
The Bourgeois Politics of Recognition
This chapter, for me, was both the book’s most helpful and most disappointing. It was helpful in the sense that I think it laid out the positive case for “identity politics” (what Wilkinson and Joustra refer to as “politics of recognition”) in a clear, sympathetic way. Identity is derived not exclusively from choice, but by the interaction between our choices and the recognition from our significant others that those choices are valid. It was disappointing because it also implicitly revealed how unoriginal these arguments actually are.
Here is one of the many helpful bits in the chapter:
In the broader culture—and in the minds of most moderns, whether or not they realize it—we imagine that our identities are unshaped by any predefined social script. Instead, we form our identities in open dialogue with one another. And therefore, as we said earlier, the stakes are higher. I need the law and my government to recognize me not just as a citizen but also as a unique citizen with a particular, valid way of being—my gender identity, my ethnic identity, my religion, my political beliefs, my sexual orientation, my profession—that is on par with everyone else’s way of being.
The stakes are high. The politics of equal recognition are central and stressful.
This bleeds over into debates over political correct language, because at its core much of the politics of recognition is not just about what the law says about me, but what society says about me. The move, for instance, to shift from calling people with physical challenges ‘disabled’ to calling them ‘differently abled’ has this issue at its core. To call someone ‘disabled’ is to presume that there are other, more able people—and that, implicitly, those ‘able’ people have a more positive status from which the ‘dis-abled’ status is derived. But when we shift the way we speak of them, it changes the way they are perceived, suggesting not that they lack but that they are simply different.
Politically correct language is about recognizing people in ways that do not harm or distort them. And being denied this form of recognition is seen as oppression, Taylor says. When I recognize you, then, I authenticate you. I impart dignity to you.
All this is to say that whereas people were once imparted honor based on rank, role, or position, people in our modern democratic cultures are meant to have individual dignity, and the recognition of each person’s dignity based on their individually discovered identity is key to our happiness. That dignity comes from the recognition of others, which means it requires those with whom we are in an intimate relationship to authenticate us through recognition.
The authors spend much of the chapter using Her to illustrate how this works in practice by highlighting how Phoenix’s character, Theodore, recognizes Samantha, his OS, and thus gives her a kind of selfhood that she did not have prior to Theodore’s speaking to her as if she had selfhood.
Where do our horizons come from?
Before moving into criticism, I want to restate what I take to be the core concern of the book so that the criticism I am making can be as clear as possible. If I am understanding the goal of the book, it is Wilkinson and Joustra’s attempt to rebut the apocalyptic language that pervades not only evangelicalism but, increasingly, popular culture.
They believe our current apocalypse-obsessed moment reveals both the dark sides of our Secular world as well as the resources that same world possesses to push back against its most dangerous excesses. Put another way, things aren’t really as bad as our most pessimistic prognosticators say. The resources to counter mainstream culture’s most dangerous impulses can be found in… mainstream culture. Though the term is so loaded that I’m somewhat reluctant to use it, you might say that Wilkinson and Joustra think we can solve the problems of post-modernity (or perhaps “Secularism”?) by being better post-modernists (or better “Secularists”).
As such, the concern of the book is not with a narrowly defined problem existing only within Christian sub-cultures nor is it concerned with trying to preserve a Christian sub-culture, as is the concern of Rod’s The Benedict Option. If anything, Wilkinson and Joustra’s project seems to be an attempt to preserve Taylor’s capital-s Secular order while remaining, in some personal sense, within the context of the Christian faith.
For this reason, I am not sure if my criticism is going to be as direct as I would like it to be. I think Wilkinson and Joustra have some fairly basic beliefs about what is actually possible in the 21st century west that I simply do not share and so the criticisms that follow grow out of fundamentally different presuppositions which make the “debate,” such as it is, a bit confused and indirect.
When I argue, as I will, that “the politics of recognition” are fundamentally disordered because they de facto reject given forms of identity and only acknowledge limitations which the individual constructing their identity acknowledge themselves, I suspect Wilkinson and Joustra will say “you can criticize them all you want, this is how everyone works—including you.” (To which my response is, perhaps, but the fact that a thing might be ubiquitous does not make it something we must accept and adapt to; it may simply make it something for which repentance will be more difficult and complicated. It might require our opting out of the society of upward mobility, opting down as it were, and choosing to accept the limitations which our ancestors had no choice but to live by. The act is not exactly the same because it is initially a choice, but it is still a qualitatively different approach than simply adopting the conditions of modern life as normal, going along with them in our personal choices about family, work, and place, and then trying to live Christianly within them.)
Consider Vito Corleone
With that bit of throat clearing out of the way, here is a key question that will get to my chief objection with the imminent horizons that Wilkinson and Joustra see as a solution to the most dangerous aspects of modern identity formation. The example of Walter White is a good one as an illustration of both the creation of the self and the power of the limiting horizons identified by Taylor. Even so, as I mentioned above, it seems significant that these horizons which limit and ultimately render White’s decisions insignificant are, for all their power over him, still relative horizons. As such, Walter could simply descend into deeper darkness, become entirely amoral, and decide he does not care about them. Or, conversely, those people who form his relative horizons might have different standards by which they judge which allow them to somehow accept Walter’s depraved behavior.
To make the point more concrete, let’s look back 40 years to the early 1970s and to two other famous antiheroes: Vito Corleone and his son Michael Corleone. Michael’s narrative path has a great deal of overlap with Walter’s. They both have an opportunity at great power in early life which they choose to walk away from. They then try to live a “normal” life outside the world of power they have left behind. Then a crisis in the family strikes and they set out to grow their own power, ostensibly for the good of the family in both cases. Over time, each of them descends deeper and deeper into the darkness until both lose their families and, ultimately, die alone. The similarities are so notable that the writers on Breaking Bad even write a scene in the show’s final season that has a great deal of overlap with the famous baptism scene in The Godfather.
But what about Vito? When you compare Vito and Michael, it’s hard to argue that Michael is somehow more horrifying than Vito. Both of them have a sort of Family First honor code that both inspires and limits their actions. Here is the key difference: Vito’s significant others view his actions in a quite different way than Michael’s do.
Vito marries a Sicilian woman from the old country who is able to look past his cruelty, perhaps even justify it, and continue to love him and remain loyal to him. Michael marries an American woman unable to make that same mental move. The only way she can handle Michael’s cruelty is to pretend it doesn’t exist, but when she can no longer live in that denial the breaking of their marriage is inevitable.
Likewise, Vito lives in Little Italy in New York City in the 1920s and early 1930s and is surrounded by his fellow Sicilians who revere and respect him. Indeed, his first kill actually endears him to them. Michael lives 30 years later when the thick immigrant communities have begun to fray and never does quite find the sort of group membership or respect that Vito enjoys.
Put another way, a combination of his choice to marry an American with radically moral norms from those of his mother and economic forces outside Michael’s control change his relative horizons in fundamental ways. What Vito could get away with, Michael cannot. And so Vito dies while playing with his grandson in the garden and receives a huge funeral from the many people who hold him in high esteem. Michael dies alone back in Italy, abandoned by his family. But here’s the key thing: The choices both Corleone men make and the identities they both create are, for the most part, very similar. But because he married a woman from “his” world and because he lived in a particular place and time, Vito ends up far better off than Michael.
Here’s my concern, then: I don’t think significant others alone actually do anything to prevent the sort of nihilistic self-creation Wilkinson and Joustra describe except by random chance. For Wilkinson and Joustra, the reason Walter White’s choices become insignificant is that they alienate his significant others. But the fact that his depraved choices alienate his particular significant others is simply luck. If Walter White lived in Little Italy in the 1920s he could have done basically the same things he does in New Mexico in the 2000s and had wildly different results. Walter himself may have always been doomed due to the odd way he relates to his family which made the fracturing of the Whites inevitable. But another person in a different context could make the exact same choices with far less consequence. Indeed, Gus Fring did precisely that for some time.
The Essentially Bourgeois Nature of Secularism’s Morality
Before continuing, let’s deal with one plausible objection to my example: Defenders of Secularism might respond by noting that these limiting factors control the behaviors of the more typical modern—Michael—more effectively than they do Vito. As we become more modern, therefore, we become less tolerant of barbarism and cruelty. So Vito’s family and community almost smile upon his killing of Don Fanucci while Michael’s wife is horrified to learn of his own brutality. Thus these sorts of essentially modern limits on how we can construct our identities work well in essentially modern contexts. Given that pre-modern societies are becoming rarer and rarer, the Vito Corleone problem would seem to be on its way to extinction.
To answer the objection we would do well to remember Berthold Brecht’s famous quip: “What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?” In other words, it is not that moderns have more sophisticated moral intuitions which allow us to control the behavior of our peers more effectively. Rather, it is that we, like all people, are very good at condemning some forms of bad behavior and privately condoning others, particularly more sophisticated forms of bad behavior which are difficult to understand or easily concealed.
To further illustrate the point we need look no further than the response to the 2008 banking scandal which saw exactly one banker sent to prison. These relative horizons work to militate against the bloody sins our modern era deplores but they seem almost entirely impotent at deterring sins which seem to exist only on paper.
As Terry Eagleton put it in his characteristically colorful way:
There are villains everywhere you look, but only some of these moral ruffians are so placed as to be able to steal pension funds or pump the media full of lying political propaganda. Most gangsters are not in a position to do so. Instead, they have to content themselves with hanging people from meat hooks.
Our society is quite adept at condemning those who hang their enemies from meat hooks. We are far less adept at condemning those who use sophisticated mechanisms to abuse the poor. Indeed, we sometimes elect such people to the presidency.
Of course, as long as we’re hammering moderns for being naive about their capacity to reason ethically and condemn evil, we should note an additional problem. We are, in fact, not as good at condemning physical brutality as we think we are. Rather, we have become adept at concealing many forms of violence—such as abortion. Viewed this way, the left’s reaction to stories like the Kermit Gosnell scandal or the Daleiden tapes is a kind of mass denial adopted in order to allow us to maintain our supposed moral superiority and our fictional disdain for barbarity.
My point, in saying all of this, is that relative horizons simply do not reliably constrain behavior in a way that can prevent nihilistic self-creation. It’s basically a crapshoot: You want to be a truly awful, horrifying human being and justify this as a quest toward expressing your authentic self. For Wilkinson and Joustra, there are limiting factors that will prevent you from doing this—namely the significant others that exist in your life.
But this is a fantasy. Those significant others will only function as a deterrent if they are a) possessing some sort of basic morality themselves (which is, frankly, unlikely in today’s world) and b) able to understand your crimes well enough to condemn them. Indeed, as we consider these questions I couldn’t help thinking of another recent pop culture figure and, indeed, another New York City villain, like Vito Corleone: Daredevil’s Wilson Fisk. If your wife can live with your cruelty and you have the smarts and money to conceal your true evil and buy off the right people… what’s going to stop you? (The none-too-reassuring answer put forward by Daredevil is a blind masked vigilante with superhero-like powers.)
What is needed, it seems to me, is not an attempt to derive limiting principles from within the extremely pragmatic context of late modernity. Rather, we need a way of deriving transcendent moral horizons which can limit destructive behavior in a real way. But to do this we must imagine a social order that is doubtless very different from our current Secular pluralistic regime.
The Progressives are conservative. The Conservatives are revolutionaries.
Somewhere in his extensive corpus G. K. Chesterton says that we live in a day where standing for the most plain, commonsense views of the classical Christian world now carries with it all the thrill of being a radical Marxist revolutionary. That line is even more true today than it was in Chesterton’s age. We live in a sort of Bizarro America where the Republicans wish to “Make America Great Again” and the Democrats sing the praises of America as it currently exists. Indeed, the most nationalistic work of art produced in recent years may well be the beloved musical “Hamilton.”
I thought of this odd quirk of our historical moment several times as I read Apocalypse. At times the book is helpful, even daring, in how it refuses to give up on Secularism as a social order. I am not indifferent to that argument—I’m a big “Hamilton” fan myself and I watched the video of the cast performing “One More Time” at the White House more than once in the final days of the Obama administration:
The allure of our current order is a real thing and its more radical critics would do well to remember that. Even so, I couldn’t help feeling somewhat disappointed by how bourgeois the book’s conclusions really are.
The resolution of the book is that we need to learn to be good stewards of institutions and choose to embrace optimism and patience as values which can help us do good, meaningful work within those institutions. The book ends its reflections on pop culture by turning away from the apocalyptic and toward the hopeful:
When a faithful institution recognizes the power it has—and recognizes that it functions best not when that power is centralized in one person but distributed appropriately among people in different roles—then it can begin to help its participants flourish and prosper rather than oppressing some while others wield control. This is a hard thing to imagine in a dystopian context, to be sure. But it becomes much clearer when one imagines, for instance, not the White House in Scandal (or House of Cards, for that matter), but in The West Wing, a proudly optimistic show in which, when it is at its best, the focus is on governance and mutual respect and the work of promoting the well-being of citizens. The West Wing even inspired people to work in policy and politics. Another non-dystopian show that does this well is Parks and Recreation, a comedy in which those who have authority in city government must sometimes make difficult decisions for the good of the citizens, but who also stand to lose their power if, for instance, the citizens decide not to reelect them.
So after all the argumentation the point we end on is looking at those bougie liberal icons Jed Bartlett and Lesley Knope as our moral exemplars.
Here are Wilkinson and Joustra concluding their argument:
One of the most basic philosophical questions you can ask is this: Who am I? In this book we saw that, today, we have some pretty unique ways of looking at that question. It is perhaps the driving question of the Secular age.
This is why apocalyptic coming of age stories like Battlestar Galactica transcend the cathartic boundary of trashy science fiction. That’s why Breaking Bad and Her tell stories that get at the basics of who we are when we’re pushed to our limits, when logical leaps are made, when pathologies are gamed out. These aren’t just creative stories; they’re our collective social anxieties aired on prime time. You can wax about ponderous philosophical tomes, or you can watch Theodore make love to his operating system.
There’s nothing wrong with this big question of personhood. The human race has been asking it for thousands of years. What makes our age unique is the conditions within which the answers are given. What makes for a ‘person fully alive,’ in the much-abused exhortation of St. Irenaues, is realized in relationship and dialogue with others, but it’s also much more intensely personal than it’s ever been before. It is about my own unique way of being human, and about the moral demand to hear my inner voice and inner self, and to be true to it.
The irony, which a little time in the meth lab or dating our operating system forces us to confront, is that while this all sounds very liberating, it can actually be pretty unsettling and stifling. This much-vaunted anthropocentrism—that it’s just me figuring out what I should be, and whoever I invite into my inner circle of authenticity—is a kind of fairy-tale myth. We live with inescapable horizons. We live (to quote MacIntyre again) as barely more than the ‘co-authors of our own narratives. Only in fantasy do we live what story we please… We enter upon a stage which we did not design and find ourselves part of an action that was not our making.’
This is what MacIntyre calls his central argument in After Virtue. The key question, to paraphrase him, is not about our own authorship. We can only answer the questions of who we are and how we should live if we answer the prior question: Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?
This has always been true; it’s just that now, we’re aware, perhaps more than ever before, that it’s possible to choose what story or stories we find ourselves a part of. Certain stories, in our view, have become optional. The horizons are now plural. We sweat it out deciding which one fits us, which story seems like it clicks with our inner self, our truest calling to self-realize and self-actualize.
Finally, they close the book with three basic proposals:
- First, we must reject nostalgia. They dismiss “pining for” the past as being both “bizarre and vaguely masochistic.” They continue: “Each age has its own peculiar pathologies (and motivating ideals),” and they are resistant to any attempts to rank one age relative to another.
- Second, because we live in a radically pluralistic context, “our systems and institutions (are) more important than ever.” Thus we need to ask ourselves, “How can we build up the best of the motivating ideals of the institutions of our age, ones that are increasingly on the front lines of a cracking social and political consensus? How can we buttress (not as a hostile takeover, but in terms of a public partnership) that same consensus with good civil and political practice?”
- Third, we need to reject fear and “refocus the work of politics to finding common cause; locating, building, and maintaining overlapping consensus among our many and multiple modernities.”
In his book The Sacrifice of Africa, Ugandan priest Dr. Emmanuel Katongole, raised an uncomfortable question: Perhaps we should not say that the African nation-state has failed, he said. Rather, we should first ask what the nation-state was actually designed to do.
In the case of sub-Saharan Africa, the geographic entities created at the Conference of Berlin, the precursors to most modern African nation-states, were quite literally created with the goal of enriching the few at the expense of the many. If this was the goal of the nation-state, Katongole asked, then wouldn’t it be better to say that the African nation-state has been a spectacular success?
That question gets at my core concern with this book. Wilkinson and Joustra methodologically embrace the relativistic, immanentizing move that defines moral discussion in our pluralistic context. Their hope in doing this is that they would help their readers to see where these norms can lead us astray and how we can avoid those pitfalls while remaining within the institutions meant to promote the common good. This is an eminently admirable move. They care enormously about the common good. They want Christians working within existing institutions to promote that common good alongside their non-Christian neighbors. This is a praiseworthy instinct. And, indeed, if this is the right course then Wilkinson herself is a spectacular example of how to do this well given her excellent work at Vox.
But that, in fact, is just the question: Are our institutions actually meant to promote the common good? We would like to assume so, but as Katongole demonstrates in his consideration of the African nation-state, if a social order continually produces the same negative results, we must ask ourselves if the order is actually failing or if it is simply producing what it is designed to produce.
Wilkinson, Joustra, and I agree on this much: Our apocalyptic moment carries with it a remarkable and exciting opportunity to promote the common good. But where they seem to see these apocalypses as, basically, known bugs which can be corrected while still working within the system, I see these apocalypses as features of Secularism. Our Secular world produces regular moments of apocalypse because that is what it is designed to do. It is designed to destabilize communities and tear down anything that obstructs individual self-expression. It is thus essentially destructive and corrosive of virtue in ways that are both historically unprecedented and uniquely terrifying. It is, indeed, Lewis’s Hideous Strength.
Therefore, the way forward cannot be to continue propping up a system that is clearly failing. It must, instead, be to do the hard work of looking back to figure out where we went wrong and then doing additional hard work in order to correct the error. If that sounds difficult, daunting, or challenging, well, yes. It is. But revolutions are not meant to be easy.